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Empire

movie reviewmovie review out of 4

All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Empire

Starring: John Leguizamo, Denise Richards
Director: Franc Reyes
Rated: R
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: December 2002
Genre: Drama


*Also starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Sonia Braga, Isabella Rossellini



Reviewer Roundup
1.  Harvey Karten review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
2.  Dustin Putman read the review movie reviewmovie review
3.  Susan Granger read the review movie reviewvideo review
4.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewvideo review

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Have you ever been invited to a party but were reluctant to go? Maybe you didn't know anybody who'd be there, or perhaps you thought you'd be out of place among people who were richer, more sophisticated, more knowledgeable. Have you ever then overcome your hesitation, headed for the affair, and then were pleasantly surprised by the people you met who were friendly and who took you into their confidence? This is the motivating factor behind Franc. Reyes compelling gangster movie, "Empire," which according to production notes is the first of the genre to be told from the Latino point of view, written and directed by a Latino. Borrowing the concept of family from "The Soprano" and some of the shootouts from the "Godfather" series, "Empire" scores because of the great appeal of John Leguizamo, a versatile individual known for such diverse roles as that of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" and a hairdresser in Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam," familiar as well to the New York theater crowd for his one-man comic performances in "Mambo Mouth" and "Spic-O-Rama."

Leguizamo performs in the role of Victor Rosa, a young, good-looking fellow of Puerto Rican extraction who lives in the South Bronx and makes a spectacular living dealing heroin which, he proudly tells us, is the best stuff out there, never overly diluted like the junk that his competitors are dishing out. Criminal activity aside, he enjoys a warm relationship with his loyal pals, especially Jimmy (Vincent Laresca) and his live-in girl friend Carmen (Delilah Cotto) whom he adores and wraps in expensive jewelry to the consternation of the girl's mother, Iris (Sonia Braga). Believing himself too hip to be taken in by con artists like 3-card monte players, he winds up ripped off for quite a bit more because of his desire to leave the drugs behind and make a legitimate life for himself, his girl, and his forthcoming son.

Throughout the story, Victor is contrasted with the fellow he meets at a party, Jack Wimmer (Peter Sarsgaard), who wins his confidence by flattery and by a show of worldly success including his trophy girl friend Trish (Denise Richards), a smashing Soho loft which he allows his new pal to use rent-free, and his apparent knowledge of Wall Street investments.

Some of the tidbits that come out in director Franc. Reyes' script are nothing we haven't heard before, but spoken in Jack Wimmer's unctuous style, you can't blame some people in the movie audience who'd like to invest with him, research be damned. As we know from the "Godfather" series, there is a belief among some in the organized crime business that their dealings are just another way of making money and that they are no more dishonest than corporate executives. As Jack tells Victor, pointing out some of his tuxedo-clad customers at the posh party, cutthroat competition is the name of the game in every field (including the media), and that what Victor does is no more reprehensible than actions we'd expect from chief executives of the big tobacco companies. When Jack points out as well that half the people at the gathering are his customers and that he is trying to win the business of the other half, we're certain that Victor is comparing Jack's life to his own, that of a man who must fight to maintain his South Bronx turf from inroads that thugs from another gang might make. While Victor is eager to reinvent himself by fitting in with a white-dominated establishment, his girl friend is more realistic, homesick for her life with mom despite the trapping of new money.

"Empire" is the first production of Arenas Entertainment, a division of Universal Pictures with a primary audience expected to be Latinos. This is a fortuitous debut not because there's anything new about the script of especially noteworthy about Ruben Blades' music or even about the concept of several worlds existing in New York City with little knowledge of one another and even less desire of people to change their cultural values. Nor is the all-too-frequent voice over narration by Mr. Leguizamo appealing, as if writer-director Reyes fears that his audience may not follow the plot without that literary intrusion. "Empire" is, however, valuable because of Leguizamo's ability convincingly to show those of us who live in the 'burbs, or in the so-called nice neighborhoods of the city what life is like in the urban jungle, where heavy risk-taking in criminal activities appears the only way to climb out of poverty.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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